Sunday, August 30, 2015

Do you believe in Signs? (Or do you believe in context?)

Last night while half asleep I had one of those brainwaves that just hits you out of nowhere when you aren't even thinking of something related to the topic. While thinking about totally random stuff, I suddenly realized,

"Holy shit! In The Silver Chair with the third sign, C.S. Lewis pretty much tells kids not to worry about context and just think about how a message makes them feel at the moment. That's a terrible lesson for kids! Why did I never see this before?

The basic plot of the story is that the characters have to follow these four signs from Aslan to find a lost prince. One sign has to do with following directions written in stone. Aslan literally takes one of the characters, Jill, in a nightmare and shows her the correct writing to follow: the words "Under me," which Jill correctly interprets to mean they should start searching under the ground beneath the words.

Later a different character tells them that the words were part of a longer poem to honor a dead giant king. "Though under earth and throneless now I be/ Yet, while I lived, all earth was under me." It's an awkward moment, but Puddleglum reassures the children by pretty much telling them, who cares if we got the context wrong? It was in the right place at the right time, so it must be part of the plan.

On the one hand, of course Aslan would never do anything as douchey as show the characters a message and have it turn out to be something totally irrelevant and misleading. He knew there were some appropriate stone carvings lying around, so he used what he had.

On the other hand...What are we supposed to take from this? It's not necessarily true that all the signs in the story are meant to represent the Bible, even though Aslan's warning at the beginning echoes Deuteronomy. Outside of superstition, there's not really a real world context where certain portents mean you're on the right or wrong path.

But in any context, blindly following clues is not a good way to make major life decisions. I can't believe someone like C.S. Lewis would be so anti-intellectual. We all know the person who says, "I didn't know what to do, and then Jesus gave me this Bible verse, so I made my decision based on that!" But while we say "Isn't that nice?" out of politeness, on the inside we're thinking, "You read a thousand random paragraphs that day and probably dozens of Bible verses. The only one you noticed was the one telling you what you wanted to hear." Living by intuition has its merits, but let's call it what it is. It ain't divine. It's just our brains making sense out of a stream of information.

Or then there's the person who says, "This verse shows how special God thinks I am and how he's going to protect me!" and you think, "Yeah...that was a promise to Israel...which God broke...and it's followed by verses about how awesome it would be to smash Babylonian babies."

When you see a sign or message, should you investigate the whys and the wherefores, or should you just assume it was meant for you and charge ahead? In the story, the children could have exercised more caution, especially with Harfang, but is the message that caution is good for everything except matters of faith? When I think about it, whenever the characters are cautious and hold back in the matter of the signs, that turns out to be the wrong decision. Pretty much every one of the signs involves taking risks, not observing.

Maybe I'm way over analyzing. In real life talking lions don't give you vague directions either. (Would it really have killed him to say, "Btw, Caspian's the old dude"?) But then if there's no relevance at all behind the story, that takes out any merit the characters might have earned by following the signs. They had to because of the weird context of the story, but there's no relatability because no one in real life is in a similar situation.

Bottom line: if someone tells you to analyze everything except their own precepts, run for the hills. Context matters. Decide for yourself what the optimal decision is, while entertaining a healthy suspicion about other people's motives. Don't trust talking lions. They prevaricate.